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Performance anxiety: kids not exempt

Teaching Kids to Relax Playing Sports

Performance exhaling is one technique


It might seem a little odd to think about a ten-year-old soccer player suffering from performance anxiety, a term usually reserved for adult athletes who choke under pressure, but chances are that, as a parent, you have seen a youth athlete, either your child or one of his teammates, suffer from performance anxiety too. Coach with young girls soccer players on bench

Signs of performance anxiety

Using soccer as an example, a child may be suffering from performance anxiety if she:

  • Can't sleep the night before a game.
  • When it is time to leave for the game, tells you that she doesn't want to play that day (or says she is feeling sick).
  • Cries or becomes upset after making a bad pass or missing a scoring opportunity.
  • Shies away when the ball comes in her direction.
  • Likes to kick the ball in practice but never really looks comfortable on the field during the game.

Pressure cooker

These are just a few of the things that parents may notice as they watch their children develop in youth soccer, or any sport, for that matter. Many of the events that make us uncomfortable as parents are developmental skill issues that the coach should be addressing.  Any time a young player starts to have success, he builds confidence. Once  he builds confidence in his ability during practice situations, the more likely he will be able to show off his new skills during an actual game.

However, some of these sport development issues concern anxiety. Children in general are under more pressure today than ever to perform to adults' expectations.  More children than ever are developing anxiety disorders as they try to deal with the pressure of standardized tests and living up to their parents' expectations.  It is no surprise, then, to see such anxiety during sports competitions .

Sometimes we will tell our young player to relax while they are  playing.  But if we do not teach them to "relax under pressure," then telling them to relax can end up actually increasing the pressure and anxiety they feel.

Performance exhaling

There are several different relaxation skills that a parent can teach their young player. The easiest is breathing. That sounds weird, since we all are breathing. But when we help players learn how to exhale effectively, their enjoyment of the game can improve.

Here are the steps that I advise parents teach young players about  performance exhaling:

  • Teach them to experience the relaxation response that comes with intentional exhaling. Do this in the comfort of your home. Practice every day so that it becomes natural.
  • Help the player to recognize when to do a performance exhale in the game. In baseball, for example, a performance exhale can help to reduce performance anxiety: 
    • As part of a battter's routine when the settling into the batter's box before each pitch 
    • For pitchers, just before begining their wind up (if you watch major league baseball, you will see pitchers, especially closers, do this all the time)
    • For a field player, as the pitcher starts his windup and they get into their set position.

Relax under pressure for peak performance

Your young player will start to build and experience confidence as they relax under pressure.

  • They will be more focused for each play in the game;
  • They will probably improve their skill level; and
  • Most importantly, they will enjoy the game more.

In sum, performance anxiety is not just for adults. As we teach our children how to relax under pressure" they can use these skills to improve their performance and enjoyment in both sports and at school.

Revised September 16, 2011